Okay, so it’s true that I’ve already written a tutorial or two about photographing dogs. So you maybe asking yourself, "how is photographing puppies any different than photographing dogs?” Well, if you're asking that question, you've obviously never had a puppy. Puppies and dogs sometimes almost seem to be different species. There's the older dog who would really rather warm himself by the fire than go chasing after a stick, and then there is the puppy, who'd rather chase that stick than do just about anything. One animal is quiet, well-trained, and easier to capture with your camera, the other one is always on the move, doesn't know the meaning of the word “sit," and thinks the lens of your expensive DSLR might actually be an extension of the stick he was just chasing a few minutes ago.
First, a little review
There are some similarities between photographing dogs and photographing puppies, so if you're not already familiar with some of the tips and tricks for getting great dog photographs, let's just take a few minutes to review. First, like children, animals always look more compelling in photographs that were shot from eye level. This is particularly true for puppy photographs because puppies are so small. It's easy to fall into the trap of photographing them from above because you have to get so very low to the ground in order to find yourself at eye level. That's going to mean laying down on your belly in the grass, and because your puppy isn't very well trained yet, making very sure that that grass doesn't contain any surprises.
Eye to eye photographs are more compelling because it's much easier to relate to a subject that you can look in the eye. When you're looking at a subject from above, which is how we generally look at puppies, there's a feeling of disassociation, of being literally and figuratively above the subject of the photograph.
Once you're down there on the ground, you're probably going to have a hard time keeping your puppy out of your face, so it's going to be helpful to have a helper who can distract him. And a helper is useful for more than just a distraction—the helper can also help keep your puppy safe, and can help you set up shots while you are otherwise occupied with your camera’s settings and composing your photographs.
We've already talked about sticks, but balls are great props as well. Try a couple of different varieties—one that he can easily hold in his mouth and an oversized one that might be a little more of a challenge for him. Both are going to help you get fun and compelling photographs, but the oversized ball is going to add a touch of humor to your shots.
Generally speaking, you're going to want to use a widesh angle lens—a medium-range zoom would be ideal. Puppies don’t tend to want to stray too far from their people, so you may need the wider angle when your puppy is close to where you’re shooting from. A telephoto lens can be helpful too—when you're on the grass on your belly, your puppy is probably going to think that you want to play, so if you can have your helper place him at some distance away, having a telephoto lens will allow you to get a good photo of him before he comes charging towards you. Of course, keep in mind that a particularly friendly puppy is only going to let you get a few shots with that telephoto lens before he's so close that that telephoto lens is going to be all but useless. Another benefit of shooting with a telephoto lens is that it will also help you turn the background into some pretty, blurry bokeh—but you may only be able to get a few shots this way so definitely make sure the telephoto lens isn't the only one you have.
Keep your shutter speed high—1/500 is a nice, safe shutter speed to use when photographing an active puppy. Even if you do manage to catch him sitting, he may not stay sitting for long, so you want to be ready with that fast shutter speed just in case he moves suddenly. You'll also want to keep your aperture relatively wide. What you don't want is a lot of detail in the background, because that detail can distract from your subject. Think of your puppy photograph like any other portrait—you want your viewer’s attention to be on the subject, not on anything distracting that might be in the background. If the background is your own backyard, it may be lovely and well manicured, but those roses are still going to distract from your subject if they are in sharp focus. Choose an aperture of around f/5.6, and make sure you check your results on your camera’s screen in case you need to go even wider than that. Remember that getting good blur on the background is not only a matter of aperture but also distance—the closer you are to your subject, the more blur you're going to get, and the farther away from the background your subject is, the more blur you're going to get. If you've got a small backyard, you may want to consider shooting most of your photographs from a closer perspective. Now that's probably going to have some challenges, but I think you'll be happier with results if you rise to meet them.
Natural light is typically the best kind of light to use for photographing animals of all kinds, whether it's that old dog or that eight-week-old puppy. But it's a particularly good idea to photograph puppies in natural light for a couple of reasons. First, when you're indoors you may want to use flash, and flash may upset your subject, which could result in you getting photographs that don't completely capture the charm of that lively puppy personality. Remember that puppies are brand-new to the world, and bright flashing lights are probably not something in their experience. Never mind that flash is typically a bad idea for shooting animals anyway, especially your onboard flash since it can cause red eye (really more of a white or yellow eye in animals) glare (particularly off of clean, shiny fur), and just overall poor quality. Alternately, you can use off-camera flash or bounced/diffused flash, which can give you excellent results, but you may find it prohibitively difficult to coordinate that off-camera flash with the cavorting puppy. For this reason, I don't really recommend it unless you are already pretty experienced at photographing puppies and using an off-camera flash to provide bounced or diffused light.
Another reason why natural light is great for photographing puppies is that it just makes them look more natural. Dogs love to be outdoors and that natural light complements them in their natural setting. But remember that you need the right kind of natural light—if you're photographing your puppy at noon you might be disappointed in the quality of the image. That's because the light at noon is direct and bright and your camera may not be able to capture a complete range of tones in such a situation. You may end up with very black shadows or blown out highlights, and you won't be able to capture much detail in your puppy’s fur. Instead, wait for the golden hour, which is that hour just after sunrise or just before sunset. During the golden hour the light is diffused and it comes from the side, so it will create beautiful details on your puppy's coat, and that soft quality will flatter his sweet personality.
Puppies love to play. And watching them play is freaking hilarious. But as tempting as it may be to capture the hilarity with your camera, you may find yourself increasingly frustrated with attempting to keep that hyperactive puppy in the camera frame and away from your lens. The good news is that puppies tire pretty quickly, so you can make things easier for yourself by giving them some time to play before you really get serious about the photo shoot. That doesn't mean that you can't have your camera out just in case there is a photographable moment that you don't want to miss, but don't have really high expectations for this part of the shoot. Instead, make it your goal to tire your puppy out a little bit so you can spend more time thinking about how to compose the shot and less time just desperately trying to keep your subject in the frame. Give yourself a couple of hours for the photo shoot if you can. That way you can start with an exuberant puppy and end with one that is tuckered out. What could be cuter than a photo of a sleeping puppy? And sleeping puppies are much easier to photograph than wild, crazy, ball chasing puppies.
Once your subject starts to slow down a little, that's where your helper is going to be really useful—this is the point where you can try to position him a certain way or with a certain prop. Let’s say you want a picture of him standing on a rock feature in your backyard—a helper can lift him up and encourage him to stay there, and it will be a much easier task if you’re doing this later in the session when your subject is starting to wear himself out.
Don't expect too much
The cardinal rule of photographing puppies is to lower your expectations. You're not going to be able to tell your puppy to stop running around or to sit or to lie down or to not chew on that shoe. Puppies just don't know that much. Chances are, your puppy is probably still peeing on the floor. That doesn't make him a very cooperative photographic subject, so you will eliminate your own frustration if you just don't have any expectations that you'll be able to guide to the photo shoot in much more than a general direction. Instead, just follow your puppy around and know that he's going to do cute, photographable things all by himself without any input from you. Now that doesn't mean that you can't give him some things to play with—that the large ball was one example, but you can also give him chew toys, things to climb on, and things to crawl through. Knowing your puppy's personality is going to help you here—some puppies like to climb on and through things and other puppies don't, so choose your props according to what you know about his habits and behaviors.
Just as with photographing toddlers, photographing puppies requires patience—oodles of it. And it also requires burst mode. Make sure you take plenty of photographs and, especially during the action, keep your finger on the shutter button and your camera in continuous shooting mode. Not all of your photos are going to be winners, and you're likely going to experience some frustration over the course of the shoot, which may or may not be associated with giant nose prints on the end of your lens. Pay attention to your puppy's mood and try to predict what he's going to do. If he's your puppy, this will be easier than if he is a stranger’s puppy, but either way, I know this is a tall order since you likely haven't had your brand-new puppy for very long. With enough patience, though, you’ll be able to capture some wonderful moments—after all, your subject is one of the cutest creatures on Earth, so you'd almost have to be not trying to end up without any adorable shots after an hour or two of shooting.
- Shoot from eye level
- Use a helper to keep him away from the lens
- Camera settings
- Use a wider angle
- Keep a telephoto on hand for more distant shots
- Use a fast shutter speed (1/500)
- Use a mid-range aperture (f/5.6)
- The light
- Shoot outdoors in natural light
- Give him time to play
- Wait for him to slow down a little
- Don't expect to much
- Let your subject lead the way
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